Beauden Barrett is a handbrake on Sonny Bill Williams - Mark Reason
OPINION: Graeme Hick was going to stand above English cricket, arms spread wide, like Christ the Redeemer looking down on the seamy streets of Rio de Janeiro. Only it never happened. The West Indies bowlers went after Hick's throat. They took away his time. And Hick, redefined as the carpetbagger from Zimbabwe, fell from grace.
The story reminds me a little of what has been happening to Beauden Barrett in recent months. Don't get me wrong. Barrett is still a magnificent player, very likely the greatest fullback in the world. But at number 10 he is being starved of time and it is starting to get to him.
On Monday I went back and watched the 2015 World Cup final again. Australia came after Dan Carter. They hit him late and hard. They tried to deprive him of time and space. But Carter just turned their own guns against the Aussies. Even under the severest pressure, Carter's every pass to the next man was exquisitely accurate. He made time for his teammates to do the damage.
That is the art of stand-off play and it is one of several areas where Barrett is still lacking. Has Sonny Bill ever played really well outside him? I am sure he must have done, but the occasions are hard to bring to mind. More readily we see images of mistimed runs or of SBW checking to fetch a ball that has been put just behind him.
When I think of Sonny Bill in his pomp it is always outside either Carter or Aaron Cruden. Or now, even Lima Sopoaga. When Sopoaga came on he caught a kick-off and gave SBW a gentle little pop pass. Sonny Bill had the time to measure his stride and the opponents in front of him. The pass was a negligible thing, but it made all the difference.
Barrett is not a particularly good passer and when he is under time pressure, the weakness becomes exaggerated. Go back and watch the game against Argentina. Barrett's passing off his left hand is just awful. He constantly checks his runners by passing behind them. And the height is erratic. His teammates are often reaching to get the ball under control.
Some New Zealanders, including much of the media, sneered at Eddie Jones when he said, "He's (England stand-off George Ford) got a beautiful skillset. I think George can be better than Beauden Barrett. People rave about Beauden Barrett but I don't. I'll leave it at that. I don't pick the player of the year."
Jones was aware that Ford is a far subtler passer at the line than Barrett. Ford makes space for those around him. There is no doubt that the large English contingent that was part of the Lions knew Jones' thoughts on Barrett and they would have influenced Warren Gatland's thinking. The plan was to get to Barrett and then the limbs outside would start to wither.
That is also the reason why Jones called Aaron Smith New Zealand's most important player. At the very top level Barrett needs to be given a smidgen of time to do the wondrous things of which he is capable. That is why he should be playing fullback as Mils Muliaina acknowledged on Saturday night.
But it will be a surprise if Hansen admits this. The All Blacks coach says many sensible things. Hansen said after the victory over Argentina; "We put some really silly kicks in and ended up getting ourselves into trouble. So just our option taking there didn't help. We're trying to force things."
Quite right. The silliest kicks of all came from the boot of Barrett, the man who is supposed to be guiding the team. The worst was just before halftime. The All Blacks had possession in the middle of the pitch. They were moving toward the break with a lead. Then Barrett gives the ball back to Argentina and they go up the other end and score.
The trouble is that Hansen has burned his bridges. He and his coaches knew two and a half years ago that the future was Cruden. But for the knee injury I suspect that he would have kept Carter out of the World Cup final. They also knew that Tawera Kerr-Barlow was their second best halfback.
But Hansen, Ian Foster and Grant Fox were seduced by the Hurricanes. Wellingtonians know the feeling. They also know that it nearly always heralds a false dawn. And for now the sun has fallen out of the sky again. Barrett is not quite the player the world had assumed.
Which leaves the All Blacks in a pickle. Hansen was quick to say after the match against the Pumas: "There's a difference between the speed of ball when Aaron's there so he will come back. That makes a difference to how we play."
It certainly makes a difference to Barrett. When Sopoaga was on the field he was able to create space for others. Immediately there were more different looks at 10 with both SBW and Nehe Milner-Skudder becoming first receiver. The changing patterns were once more like the World Cup final when Carter would frequently change the look of what the defence was seeing.
Barrett lacks the same vision. There was a moment in the first half when Barrett tried a cross kick from out of his 22 to Israel Dagg. It nearly came off and the commentators loved it. But I sensed that Wayne Smith would have been pulling his hair out. Barrett had Damian McKenzie, SBW, Vaea Fifita and Dagg outside him against two back row forwards. It was a run in. And in the hurly burly Barrett didn't see it.
Barrett is a special player, the best high ball catcher in the team and an electrifying runner. But at international level Barrett is not a 10. And we haven't even talked about his goalkicking.
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